I’ve had some time to reflect on Reboot Alberta after posting my initial thoughts Saturday night and participating in the Sunday morning session. On the drive home Sunday afternoon, I felt good. I thought about the many smart, talented people who are passionate about our province that I had the privilege of connecting with – some are old friends, many are new ones. I thought about what I had wanted to get out of the weekend, and what had transpired over the previous 36 hours. I thought about the sense of community I felt in the room all weekend. The respect for people and for different ideas that was constant. The pride in Alberta and the desire to make our home even better – whether one lives in a condo in downtown Edmonton or on a ranch by Picture Butte.
I thought about what might come next from this movement, where it might go one month, one year, or one decade in the future. I thought about how I might play a role. But most of all, I thought about The Argument.
Now, I don’t capitalize “The Argument” to convey a universal truth. Far from it. As some readers might know, either because I’ve linked to them on the web or cited them in conversation, there are two pieces I look to for inspiration in progressive politics. On a more micro level, the revival of progressive politics and the Democratic Party in Texas over the past few years. The second is the more macro level progressive movement in the United States this decade. The story of this is told in many books and articles I’ve read, but best of all in the book by journalist Matt Bai, titled The Argument.
The book’s subtitle is “Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics”. Focusing on the period between the 2004 re-election of President Bush, and the 2006 mid-term election when the Democrats gained control of both houses of congress, Bai tells the story of wealthy donors, previously unheralded bloggers, and regular citizens from across the country who were united in cause, and spurred to action by common ideas and sentiments. First and foremost was a profound worry about the direction of their country. They also, by and large, shared a dislike for the centrism that the Democratic Party had come to embrace since the ascendancy of Bill Clinton in 1992. You could see it in 2003, when previously dispirited activists embraced the insurgent campaign of Howard Dean for his party’s nomination for President. They embraced his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq, his support for universal health care, and, as Bai recounts, they roared when he delivered the line “I’m Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!” (he borrowed this line from the late progressive Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellestone). Following the Dean campaign, they pushed for a stronger progressive agenda, forming new organizations, taking to blogs and the web to connect with like-minded citizens, and supporting challenges to the establishment in the form of candidates such as Ned Lamont, who took on incumbent Connecticut Senator Joe Liebermann. Bai’s central point, though, was about the paradigm-shifting efforts of progressives, especially the effort to develop a new “argument” for a changing America. It strikes a chord with me, and in particular what I talked about in my pre-Reboot Alberta post.
So what does this have to do with Alberta? First and foremost, the need, which we engaged in to some extent, to agree on and articulate “the argument” for our future. Second, I saw signs of both models I mentioned above. I connected with “progressives” of all backgrounds. Just like the American activists, who were stereotyped as urban, young, and liberal, this weekend showed there are Albertans of all ages, locations, and backgrounds who care about progressive issues. They were brought together through some connection to the organizers of the event, and many had initially connected, or gained in stature, through their participation in mediums such as Twitter, or through blogs. In this, I was reminded of a story from “The Argument” that I have often cited in the 20 months since I first read it. In this passage (pages 73-74 of the hardcover edition), Bai tells the story of a Moveon.org house party in suburban Virginia. He is talking to a politically frustrated, liberal in her mid-forties, which he follows with this passage:
Everyone at the party was roughly Linda’s age. This illustrates one of the great misconceptions about MoveOn’s membership. Establishment Democrats and hostile Republicans assumed that any online forum – whether it was MoveOn or the blogs or the Howard Dean supporters who connected through Meetup.com – had to consist of tech-savvy kids who would do anything to avoid studying for exams, nost of them concentrated on the coasts or in college towns with lots of storefront salons offering body art. It was a fundamental misunderstanding of the new progressive movement. In fact, about half of MoveOn’s members were over fifty, and many of them lived in the most ordinary, conservative suburbs you could conjure up, just like this one. The point was that they had been so isolated for too long, entirely disconnected from one another and despondent over the rise of Republican extremism and the drift of Washington Democrats toward a kind of mushy middle. If college kids wanted to commiserate with someone over the fear and misery of life under Bush, all they had to do was walk across the hall. For affluent boomers, there was MoveOn.
What MoveOn had done, along with popular lefitst blogs like DailyKos and MyDD, was to establish a virtual clubhouse for like-minded liberals clustered in hostile places. They spent their days at corporate jobs with co-workers who probably voted Republican or who would rather talk about the upcoming football game or their kids’ soccer league than about Iraq. They came home to colonial houses with neatly trimmed lawns and alarm systems and oversized refrigerators, to neighbours they barely knew expect to wave to now and then. They put their kids to bed – and then, under the halogen lamp of a home office, they flipped on the computer and spent a few minutes in a welcoming place, among faraway friends who felt as culturally and politically destitute as they did. It was where they belonged.
Never before or since have I read the power of web-based social networks so well articulated. As I mentioned above, much of these same characteristics – the isolation, the frustration, were present among some attendees. Now obviously it’s not a perfect analogy – I’m not comparing our government to the Bush administration; they are light years better, to put it mildly, and continue to advance progressive policies on some fronts, as they have since the days of Premier Lougheed. This passage is really about the power of community. Similarly, Reboot Alberta was, to my mind, not so much an expression of frustration or opposition to a single person or entity, but an expression of collective frustration – that we can all do better, whether it’s as citizens or organizations, political or not.
The myth of a conservative Alberta is well-entrenched, but the truth is that our province has a long, proud history of being progressive on many fronts. It was in Alberta that, in 1917, Louise McKinney became the first women elected to a legislature anywhere in the British Empire; she was also one of Alberta’s Famous Five who pushed for the advancement of Women’s Rights and legal recognition. In 1951, William Hawrelak, son of Ukrainian immigrants – was elected as Mayor of Edmonton – the first Mayor of a major Canadian city not of Anglo or Franco heritage. On the policy front, Edmonton and Calgary were ahead of the curve on light rail development in the 1970s, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Edmonton’s recycling program put it on the cutting edge of cities. Also, if you’re interested in electoral reform, Alberta first employed multi-member districts in 1921 (in Edmonton, Calgary, and Medicine Hat), and continued that practice until the 1950s. What I sensed from people was a desire to embrace that tradition. How this happens is a challenge. There was talk about new movements, individual actions, reinvigorating parties, or starting new political parties.
But it was during the discussion result presentations that it dawned on me: what would happen if we took all four of these ways forward AT THE SAME TIME?
Any one of these ways forward could effect change. However taking all four paths at the same time could all but guarantee the desired change.
So this brings us to the key questions. Where do we go from here, and where do we all fit in? The latter question, in particular, is one I’ve been struggling both before and after the conference. But I have come to three realizations.
First, I am far less concerned with who is in power than I am with ensuring we have good government and that good policies and laws enacted. I’m not blindly for or against any party. Frankly, I think all of them have good points (and have advanced good policies), but from time to time they do things I disagree with. That will be the case with anyone or any organization; the key is whether the good outweighs the bad.
Second, what I am concerned with is spending my time and energy effectively. I am more than willing to devote my efforts to any initiative that aligns with my values, that enjoys the support and involvement of people I respect, and that shows a good probability that my time will be well-spent and I will be able to help make a difference.
Third, I am open to any option – new or existing – that meets the criteria outlined in the previous point.
I look forward to continuing what we started in Red Deer this past weekend – in whatever shape and direction it takes on. We Albertans have an exciting future ahead of us, if we’re willing to put in the work to build it.